Fiction by Steve Karas
I’m in the supper line behind fifty white-bearded fat asses ready to stack my plate high with fried chicken, buttered egg noodles, and creamy cabbage salad. Might as well get something out of this. “Welcome Class of 2012” is spelled out above the dinner choices on the menu board. When we graduate — those of us who do — we’ll be the seventy-fifth group to stake that claim. I didn’t get into Harvard, and I’ve never been much of a Christmas guy. In fact, I dropped out of community college after a year and always preferred Halloween, so the fact that I’m here, at the Harvard of Santa schools, so they say, makes it plain just how twisted life is.
I find a seat at an empty table, bread buns rolling off my plate like snowballs.
“Sit over here, pal,” one of the Santas calls out to me.
“Saved this spot for you.”
“Come on, join us!”
It’s amazing how much friendliness is exaggerated here.
“Thanks, fellas,” I say.
For a lot of these guys, this isn’t their first rodeo. Unlike me, most are retired and have been playing Santa for years to make a little extra income. I’m sandwiched between an ex-land surveyor and an aerospace engineer. An agricultural salesman is slurping down a casserole right in my face. Some of these guys have been here before and are signed on for a tune-up, you know, to work on the ho-ho-ho or pick up new tips on beard grooming. One Santa — Gill — is already getting on my last nerve. He’s Southern-California-tan, bragging to us about how he doesn’t need the money, how he volunteers his time at hospitals and village tree lightings. I want to reach across the table and smack him upside the head with a drumstick.
From the windows, we can see flakes beginning to fall. Gill, of course, breaks out into song — “Let it Snow” — and pretty soon the whole cafeteria is rockin’. I feel like quite the imposter because, I’m embarrassed to admit, I don’t even remember the words. I’m no Santa. At six-four, a hundred ninety pounds wet, I look more like Frankenstein than anything. I scan the room, move my lips, bounce my head anyway. I do my best to stumble through it without letting on how lost I am.
“I don’t feel comfortable here,” I tell Barb.
We’re in our dorm room. She doesn’t respond or even look up, just keeps unpacking her suitcase and putting clothes in drawers. Her not saying anything says a lot. Like, “Well, you better suck it up, Wayne, unless you got a better idea because, as of now, we’ve run out of options.”
“Mom paid,” she finally says, “and we’re already here.”
My mother-in-law, The Meddler, saw a segment about this place on 20/20. Since I’ve been out of work awhile, she forked out the cash for this mini-camp and sent us as an “early Christmas gift.” In three days I’m supposed to be miraculously transformed into Santa, and Barb into Mrs. Claus. The Meddler said it would give us the chance to find seasonal work, and when she said it, I could tell she thought of herself as quite the do-gooder, which royally pissed me off. But Barb decided it might be a good idea for us to give this a try, and I’m in no position to argue with her.
“I’m going to call and see how the boys are doing,” Barb says, her hair dyed white and pulled up into a bun, which is still wigging me out.
Before the plant shut down almost a year ago, we paid our mortgage on time for a nice ranch outside Detroit. Barb stayed home with the boys — now fourteen, eleven, and six — and I made a modest living. We’d take summer camping trips to Muskegon or Ossineke, had even been to Canada once. We were kinda sorta living the American Dream. The boys haven’t wanted much to do with me in my recent mood state and now they’re crashing with their grandpa and The Meddler, who I’m sure are doing their best to convince them they’re better caretakers than us.
“Do you want to say goodnight to Dad?” Barb says. “Boys? Oh, hey, Mom. Where’d they go?” She glances at me and shrugs.
“Guess not,” I mumble.
The room smells like peppermint. Coupled with the Christmas decorations it’s smothered in — a candy cane bedspread, creepy talking Santa doll, wooden nutcrackers — I feel nauseous, like I’ve eaten too much candy. Even though I know it’s probably not for the best, I wish I were back in the comforts of my own home. I wish I were alone in my den, where I feel safe at least, searching for jobs that don’t exist or that I’m not qualified for, obsessively checking my family’s online bank account, watching our savings slowly disappear.
It’s the ass crack of dawn, the Dean of the school is at the podium in the front of the great hall (interestingly, the only guy in here with a clean shave), and I’m sipping on burnt coffee out of a Styrofoam cup. I can’t stop scratching my neck because my newly dyed beard, only three-weeks’ growth at this point, is itching to no end. I flip through the schedule: non-stop sessions on marketing and promotion, fitness training, and posing techniques, to name a few. On the last page, I read “Final Test (Hint: In Front of TV Cameras)” and my stomach churns.
“Kids expect perfection,” the Dean says. “That means you need to have fresh-smelling breath, know all the reindeer names, act like you’ve lived in the North Pole your whole life. And it helps to have real reindeer doo doo on the soles of your shoes.”
The Santas laugh in unison — a hearty laughter that rumbles from deep within their bowels. The white Santas, the Latino Santas, the one black Santa, even. I’m having a hard time understanding what’s so funny, especially at the crack of dawn’s ass.
“Give it your all on every effort,” the Dean continues, “because each kid will remember you forever. To be a great Santa, you have to want to be him, embody his spirit, be willing to stay in character through highs and lows. I’m a firm believer you don’t choose to be Santa; you’re chosen to be.”
I roll my eyes and search the crowd for someone sharing my skepticism — maybe a raised eyebrow, folded arms — but the rest of these suckers are all nodding their heads in agreement, hands on bellies.
“Enough from me,” the Dean says. “Let’s go around and have each of you share your name and your wildest Christmas story.”
As if a switch is turned on, my heart begins hammering away at my chest cavity, and I know where this is going, so I bail. I mutter something to the Santa next to me about having to hit the head, though I really don’t care if he hears. Barb is running late to her Mrs. Claus meeting and is still in our room, slipping into her plaid worsted cloak. She looks like Mrs. Doubtfire, and that actually calms me a bit.
“I can’t do this,” I say. “I’m freaking out. They’re having us get up and talk about ourselves and we’re supposed to be all cool and jolly.”
“Why don’t you take one of your Xanax, Wayne? Did you take your Xanax?”
“I hate having to rely on that stuff.” I shake one out from the pill container anyway and fire it down my throat.
“You’ll be fine,” Barb says as she squeezes her hooves into black pointed shoes with fancy gold buckles we’re supposed to presume were fashioned by elves. She stopped comforting me during these episodes months ago, and I’m not sure if she’s just fed up or if it’s tough love.
“All right, I guess I’ll deal with it myself then,” I say.
Six months back, I started waking up in the middle of the night scared I was about to die. The weirdest things are setting me off now on a regular basis. High school fears like speaking in public, talking to attractive ladies, calling about job openings.
I step closer to the door, and I can still hear Santas bellowing into the microphone: “Next thing I know my leg starts feeling wet and, sure enough, the kid’s taking a leak on me!”
For some reason, I think of the boys, especially my fourteen-year old, and I’m glad they’re not here to see me pacing the room, shrinking behind the door. The schedule, rolled up in my fist, is tight enough to make a straw. I peer down at letters following the paper’s curve, namely the letters “T” and “V.” The boys would love to see their old man on the tube, wouldn’t they? A younger version of me would have been the first to jump in front of television cameras and act a fool. I was the goof in the high school cafeteria doing magic tricks for crowds, making coins disappear in my hand, but now look at me. I crumple up the schedule into a furious little ball and dunk it into the snowman-shaped garbage bin.
That afternoon, we’re at a toy store in a local mall doing field research on the latest crazes: Furby, Elmo Live, something called a Lalaloopsy Silly Hair Star doll. Gill is examining a box holding a One Direction action figure. I believe it’s Harry Styles, and I only know this because Barb says our fourteen-year old is growing his hair out to look like him. He cares more about his Harry Styles hair, in fact, than about his grades, from what she tells me.
I see Gill nudge Barb, who’s standing beside him. “One Direction?” he says. “Who are these guys? What happened to The Monkees and The Beatles, right? Now, those were bands.” He cackles like it’s the funniest thing he’s said — ever — and Barb obliges him with a laugh herself.
I’m a few feet away, staring at a Ninjago Epic Battle Lego set, clawing at my beard, pretending not to pay any mind.
“Do you have any kids?” Gill asks her, this guy with his orange skin and white teeth, this George Hamilton in a Santa suit.
“Three,” Barb says. “All boys.”
“Three boys? You’ve got to be a saint, right? I’m in the presence of sainthood, and I don’t mean Saint Nick. No offense to you, buddy,” he says turning to me. Cackle, cackle. “How old are they?”
“The oldest is fourteen …”
“There’s no way you have a fourteen-year old. Get out! Even if you are supposed to be Mrs. Claus.”
“I do, believe it or not. The next one is eleven and the youngest is — ”
“Six,” I interrupt. “The little guy’s six.”
Gill’s eyes get wide as truck tires. He nods his head, giggles out of place, and goes back to fumbling with the Harry box. Barb pulls a doll from the shelf and clears her throat. She inadvertently presses its belly and the doll shouts, “I made a stinky!” I maneuver one of the little ninja Lego soldiers and poke his sword into the monstrous snake with its red eyes and silver fangs. Gill puts Harry away and moseys out of the aisle, beginning a carol under his breath.
The next morning, the Santas are assembled in the great hall. The toy train is chugging its way around trays of pineapple and danishes. I’m downing my black coffee and eavesdropping on conversations. “How’d you get your beard to smell like a candy cane?” one Santa says to another. “Peppermint oil,” the other one says. “That’s my little secret.” I roll my eyes. A three- hundred-pound candy cane, all right.
The Dean gets up to the podium and announces what’s on tap for the day: dance lessons and sessions on liability insurance and make-up artistry. A child psychologist will be lecturing us, too.
“Before I send you off to your first session, let’s talk about tomorrow’s final project,” the Dean says. My chest tightens. “You’ve all been paired up and will take turns playing Santa at various locations across the area — daycare centers, old age homes, churches. Local newspaper and TV crews will be floating around to catch you in action.”
That familiar feeling joins me as the Santas are bumping past to find out their assignments. I’m short of breath, and my mouth tastes like I’m sucking on batteries for mints. I’m caught in the stream of Santas, following the scent of peppermint and body odor, but inside I want to run. Inside, I’m a caveman with a sabertooth on his trail.
I don’t even have the chance to open the card with my name on it and Gill’s warm breath is heating my neck. “You’re the only Wayne P., I take it, right?”
“Uh, yeah, I think so.”
He extends his hand and grasps my sweaty palm. “Looks like it’s you and me then, buddy. Our gig’s at the Midland Mall. That’s gotta be the primo assignment, right? Am I right?”
I stare at the raspberry jelly squeezing out of Gill’s danish and onto his pearly whites. A Santa nudges my shoulder from behind and a speckle of coffee lands on my shirt.
“Whoa, you okay, buddy?” Gill says. “You don’t look too good. Bleach in your beard getting to you?”
And then the music begins to blare over the loudspeakers signaling us to move on to our first session of the day, and I’m off to the Rudolph Room to learn how to do the Christmas Waltz. Between Bing Crosby’s “Silver Bells” and Gill’s cackling, there’s no time to think, and that’s probably exactly what I need.
Barb and I are lying in bed watching the news. A blizzard is blowing in, they say. Over a foot of snow is expected to drop by tomorrow afternoon. Outside our window, things seem calm for now. A lamppost lights the mounds of snow, the lot of them glazed with a thin veil of ice, that have set up camp right there for the winter.
“Maybe they’ll cancel this stupid final project,” I say.
Barb doesn’t look at me, only tucks her white locks behind her ears, pushes up her glasses with her trigger finger. “One more day, Wayne. And just think, once you have a diploma from here, you’ll be like a Super Santa. You’ll be able to work wherever you want, I bet.”
“Super Santa. Fantastic, what I’ve always aspired to be. Maybe I can be like the jerkoff they’ve paired me up with.”
“Oh, c’mon, Gill seems like a nice guy.”
“He’s not. But the good thing is, I’m sure his pompous ass will have no problem doing the whole gig on his own and I can sit back, blow smoke up his rear, and finish up so we can go home already.”
“Maybe you should hang out with Gill, regain your confidence. It doesn’t seem like anything bothers him. That’s the way you used to be before all this.”
This has an assortment of connotations and hangs in the air like God-awful breath. For ten years running, I was racking up World’s Best Dad T-shirts and mugs each Christmas. Now whose fault is it I can’t keep up the act? Whose fault is it I’m reduced to vying for the title of Super Santa?
“So, what,” I say, “do you want to fuck the guy?”
Barb’s head whips around and she glares at me, eyes crazy, mouth like a giant sinkhole.
“I’m sorry, that was dumb.”
She jumps out of the bed. “What’s wrong with you? Have you completely lost your mind?” She storms into the bathroom, slams the door, locks it. That doesn’t stop her from yelling at me, though, and I’m a little embarrassed thinking if anyone hears us, it may dampen the Christmas cheer. “Now that your family needs you to step up,” Barb says, “all you want to do is hide in your den like a damn groundhog waiting for the spring!”
“I mean, what kind of man have you become?”
She keeps going like that for a while. Comments of that nature that slowly taper off. When she comes out an hour later, even after I say “Sorry” for the umpteenth time, she doesn’t make eye contact or respond. She gets into bed, and we’re lying with our backs to each other. I can’t sleep, and she periodically kicks the sheets and readjusts her pillow so I don’t suppose she’s sleeping much, either. I gaze out the window wondering how I let this go so far, and then snowflakes start to fall at some dreadful hour and I assume the blizzard has burst through the gates.
I’m the first Santa in the great hall. It’s as quiet as this place has been, and even the Christmas lights haven’t been turned on yet. The Dean is getting the coffee brewed. I reach for a gingerbread scone from the breakfast table. “Is it okay if I grab one of these?”
“Oh, yeah, sure. Early bird gets the worm, right?”
I stare out at the snow falling down sideways, the wind combing the evergreens back like a big brush. The Dean seems unfazed, goes back to the kitchen and brings out a fruit platter, like it’s just another day in the North Pole. I catch a glimpse of his Mrs. reaching for plates from a cabinet.
“So what line of work are you in back home,” the Dean says, “you know, when you’re not donning the Santa costume?”
“I worked at a plant that manufactured parts for the auto companies. Drive-line parts mostly. Front and rear axles, propeller shafts. I was on the assembly line for seventeen years, but the plant closed down for good about a year ago. Been out of work since.”
“Nothing else out there, huh?”
“Nothing else I know how to do.”
“Well, you came to the right place.”
“I suppose,” I say.
“You got kids, Santa?”
“Well, if there’s any good in this, it’s that you’ll be able to relate as well as anyone when you have that sad little child on your lap asking you to get his daddy a job or help them keep their house.”
A few groggy Santas, half-asleep, drag themselves into the hall. They nod their heads and mumble “Good morning” before lining up for coffee.
“Where you headed this afternoon?” the Dean asks me.
“Midland Mall. With good ol’ Gill.”
“Oh, boy, guess you didn’t hear. Gill went out skiing at Apple Mountain last night. Broke his leg. You won’t be seeing him unless you plan on visiting the MidMichigan Medical Center.”
“So what the hell does that mean for me?”
“I guess it means you’re on your own, Santa. Think you can handle a mall full of overexcited kids?”
Fortunately, the mall is pretty much a straight shot down 10 because I’m on my own, and I can’t see out of the windshield even with the wipers going full force. Barb is with the other ladies probably learning how to bake cookies, and even if she weren’t, she wouldn’t be with me. She hasn’t talked to me since last night, and I’m sure she doesn’t think I’d muster the balls to do this mall thing, which may very well be the reason I’m going.
With the snow, I’m expecting a light crowd, but of course it comes to a stop as soon as I get out of the truck. Because that’s the twisted nature of this life. A plow is crashing through the lot, clearing the way for all the minivans and little tykes I imagine are eagerly throwing on their coats and boots in foyers across town. Inside, the mall is set for my arrival. In the center of the courtyard, behind kiosks selling chair massages and pillow pets, there’s a towering tree with red and green ornaments. Beside it, there’s a gold throne, my throne, surrounded by poinsettias and phony gift boxes. Carols are piping through the loud speakers: “You better watch out. You better not cry …” It reminds me of a time not that long ago but that seems long ago, when I was the one on the other side of the red velvet rope with my three boys. To be honest, I don’t even know if my six-year old still believes in Santa.
I meet up with the general manager, a chubby fella with a five-o’clock shadow who looks like he could be a mall Santa, too, if he wasn’t running this joint. He walks me into a back room, makes me sign some papers, and invites me to go ahead and get suited up. He wishes me a Merry Christmas in the same way a churchgoer would say, “Bless you, Father,” to a priest, and then walks out.
I’m alone for the first time in full costume — suit, boots, hat, and gold-rimmed glasses. I examine myself in a smudged face mirror stuck to a file cabinet and realize it’s been a while since I’ve done so. I don’t look anything like me, but it is me. I don’t think I look much like Santa, either, but as long as the kids buy what I’m selling, as long as one of them doesn’t sniff me out, this can end up all right. I grab a Snickers from the vending machine and wolf it down for a little boost.
As I’m heading to my throne, I start feeling weak, hyperventilating. I try to remember everything I’ve absorbed over the last three days despite putting so much effort into not paying attention to any of it. “Keep your hands in plain view. Keep your hands in plain view. Keep your hands in plain view,” I’m muttering under my breath. I give my mustache a little curl because it apparently gives more of a fantasy look, adds to the magic that is Santa. The line is building, I see, into a mass of moms and strollers, winter coats, and runny noses. The mall photographer is setting up, and I spot a TV crew lurking by the RadioShack. I can’t feel my beard itch, and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing.
My phone begins vibrating in my pocket, and I’m worried if someone sees me answering it I can get in trouble because maybe Santa isn’t supposed to have a phone. But then again they’re presumably making all these toys in the North Pole, right, so why wouldn’t they have phones, too, in this day and age? Plus, it might be an emergency so I pull it out. It’s Barb.
“What’s up?” I say. “I’m about to go on,” thinking maybe she’s calling to give me some last-minute moral support, declare how much she believes in me.
“I just had a call from my mom,” she says. “Are you sitting?”
“Yes, I’m sitting. I’m sitting in my Santa throne.”
“Your son decided to sneak out of the house last night. My parents found out when the police brought him home around midnight after they caught him drinking beer with two of his friends in an alley.”
“You’re telling me this now?”
My immediate reaction is to race out of here because I have a legitimate excuse. I’ll do the three-hour drive home in two, grab my boy, and shake him. My boy who I’ve barely spoken to the past six months, my boy who’s growing his hair out to resemble a British pop star. As much as I’d like to ask him what he was thinking — why? — I know he won’t have a good answer and I already kinda sorta know why, anyway. Besides, I have an army of toddlers that will hunt me down and trample me into the snow if I run for it at this point.
“I’m sorry I’m laying this on,” Barb says. “I just had to tell you.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“Mom and Dad have been keeping an eye on him all day. We’ll deal with this tonight. No point in leaving now, anyway, because we’ll just get stuck on the highway with this snow.”
“Ready, Santa?” the GM calls.
No, no, I’m not. But “Ho, ho” is what comes out of my mouth.
“Good luck,” Barb says. “I’m proud of you, Wayne.”
The first kid is being dragged toward me by his mom, and I don’t have time to cry or yell or scrutinize my parenting. The kid is clinging to his mom as they near, terrified, like if he comes to me he’ll be swallowed up into the abyss that is my fluffy red suit. The mom tries to drop him in my lap, but his arms are locked around her neck.
“It’s okay, little pal. You can come here,” I say.
“Oh, he did this last year, too,” the mom says, swiping her dangling brown hair from her eyes.
Then why the hell did you bring him back? I’m thinking.
“Come on, sweetie,” the mom pleads. “Santa just wants to know what you want for Christmas.”
The kid is finally in my lap, but writhing, arching his back, one arm grasping his mom’s top.
In a panic, I start thinking WWGD — What Would Gill Do? “Do you want to hear all about my reindeers?” I say. “Donner, Blitzer.” But he doesn’t stop thrashing. So I dig into my pocket and pull out a quarter. “Hey, hey, watch, little buddy. Watch what Santa can do.”
He quiets a bit, his chest still heaving, though, snot running down his lip. He sneezes on me.
I show him the coin between my thumb and index finger. “Should we make it disappear?” I ask and he nods. I swipe my right hand over the coin as if I’m grabbing it and then squeeze the hand shut. “Go ahead and blow on it,” I say.
He looks to his mom for reassurance. “Blow on it, sweetie,” she says and so he does.
And then I slowly fan my fingers open for the big reveal and, lo and behold, the coin has vanished as far as the little guy can tell. His eyes widen, and it’s the same expression my boys used to have when I would do the same trick for them. They’d gawk at me in amazement as if I were otherworldly, invincible, like they couldn’t believe I was their dad. And I was pretty sure they’d never doubt me for a second.
By the time I make the coin reappear behind the kid’s ear, he’s not crying anymore. In fact, he’s twiddling with my mustache. His mom backs away a few steps and the photographer snaps a picture I have to believe is a good one.
“Okay, so now let’s get down to business, little man,” I say. “What is it you want Santa to get you for Christmas?”
The 2016 Luminaire Award for Best Prose
SECOND PLACE WINNER
We are pleased to announce the second place winner for the 2016 Luminaire Award for Best Prose, honoring the independent press’ best short stories and hybrid prose works of the year. The winner is selected by an external panel that judges all pieces blind and selects the full list of finalists. Alternating Current does not determine the final outcome for the judging; the external judges’ decisions are final.
Steve Karas is the author of Kinda Sorta American Dream (Tailwinds Press, 2015) and Mesogeios (WhiskeyPaper Press, 2016). His work has appeared in Necessary Fiction, jmww, Hobart, and elsewhere. Steve lives in Chicago with his wife and two kids and is currently finishing his first novel. You can find him at steve-karas.com or @Steve_Karas. This story originally appeared in Little Fiction.